In Order to Dwell in God’s Presence: Seven Ways to Read Psalms

IMG_4667This month brings us to the Book of Psalms in the Via Emmaus Bible Reading plan. And I say “Book” because Psalms is more than a collection of random songs; it is a highly structured book which tells the redemptive story of David and his greater Son—the king who is enthroned on Zion.

In fact, the Psalter is composed of five books (Pss 1–41; Pss 42–72; Pss 73–89; Pss 90–106; Pss 107–50) and demonstrates many convincing proofs that the order of the Psalms is intentional. If you have spent any time on this blog, you know how much time I have spent arguing this point and showing how (I think) the Psalms are organized. 

In this post, which begins our look at the Psalms this month, I want to offer seven reading strategies for reading, understanding, and praying the psalms. These approaches are suggestive, not exhaustive; there is not one right way to read the Psalms, but knowing that the Psalms possess a unified message may be helpful for reading the psalms this month. If you have another way(s) to read the Psalms, please include them in the comments. Here are my seven suggestions.

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Seeing the Bigger Picture by Seeking the Most High God: Three Meditations on Psalms 90–92

scattered02In these strange days of social distancing, sheltering at home, and seeking the Lord without the gathered assembly of God’s people, I have been led to meditate on the eternal perspective that Psalms 90–92 provide. These three psalms should be read together, and together they provide a ladder to climb out of current crisis to see a greater vision of life that extends beyond our current horizon and runs into eternity.

At a time like this, when all of life is shutting down and projecting fear, we need to see this vision of God and his greatness. For only a true vision of God on high can give us the strength to trust God and love neighbors and serve others, as we are being led to protect ourselves at all costs.

Here are three messages on these psalms. May they bolster your faith in the sovereign Lord during this time of global pandemic and panic.

Eternal Perspective in a Time of Isolation: A Meditation on Psalm 90

Five Keys to Security in an Insecure Age: A Meditation on Psalm 91

Two Ways to Flourish: A Meditation on Psalm 92

This week, you can also find a daily devotion from the elders of Occoquan Bible Church. These video devotions remember the events of Holy Week and prepare our hearts to remember the death of Christ and celebrate his triumphant resurrection. Give them a listen and be encouraged in the finished work of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

 

Eternal Perspective in a Time of Isolation: A Meditation on Psalm 90 (with Sermon Video)

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[This is the first message in a series, Steadfast Psalms for a Scattered People]

This week our church was “cancelled.”

Praise around the throne of God went on unceasing, but our church didn’t gather because of the now-infamous and still-dangerous Coronavirus. With this unwanted hiatus, our elders decided to offer a devotional meditation for our congregation. This was not an attempt to replace church—an online “gathering” cannot reproduce what the body of Christ gathered does. Yet, we wanted to feed the flock from the scriptures. And this week that word came from Psalm 90, a prayer of Moses, the man of God.

You can watch the video here. What follows is a more fulsome meditation on this Psalm.

In these days of self-imposed and government mandated isolation, we need to learn from those who have walked the path of isolation and walked it well.

In the Bible, few have experienced soul-crushing isolation like Moses. At forty, Moses was a prince in the household of Pharaoh. Yet, in the blink of an eye, Moses went from the center of power in Egypt to the backside of the dessert, where he would chase sheep for another forty years. Continue reading

The Happiness That Godly Sorrow Brings: Ten Things About Psalm 32

10 thingsIn preparation for Sunday’s sermon on Psalm 32, here are ten things about David’s confession of sin that leads to joyful song.

1. Psalm 32 is a hybrid psalm containing elements of thanksgiving and wisdom.

Gerald Wilson calls Psalm 32 a “psalm of thanksgiving coupled with instruction encouraging the reader not to resist the guidance of Yahweh but to trust him fully” (Psalms Vol. 1544). Likewise, Peter Craigie concludes Psalm 32 is “a basic thanksgiving psalm [that] has been given literary adaptation according to the wisdom tradition” (Psalms 1–50265).

For those who read the Psalm devotionally, not academically, the classification of the Psalm does not matter as much as how the elements of thanksgiving and wisdom work together. In the flow of Psalm 32, thanksgiving leads to instruction and words of wise counsel arise from God’s forgiveness for which David is thankful. In this way, it is helpful to see how thanksgiving and instruction reinforce one another in Psalm 32 and our lives. Continue reading

Learning to Lament: Ten Things About Psalm 13

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In preparation for Sunday’s sermon on the need for lament in biblical worship, here are ten observations from Psalm 13, an individual lament of David.

1. Psalm 13 is an individual psalm that was recorded for public use.

Psalm 13 begins with the superscription (ss), “To the Choirmaster. A Psalm of David.” From this inspired introduction, we learn the source of this Psalm (David) and how it was to be used (in the corporate assembly, as led by the choirmaster). This use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my) in corporate worship is interesting, because it causes the corporate gathering to speak of personal pain. This teaches us something about our own singing today and the use of pronouns, but it also shows us how these Psalms were used. Clearly, they are meant to be used by all the saints, even as they come from the personal life of David.

2. Psalm 13 is prototypical psalm of lament. 

In the Bible we find individual laments (Pss. 6, 13, 22, 35, 28, 42–43, 88, 102, 109, 142; Jer. 20:7–11) and corporate laments (Pss. 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 89; cf. Lam. 5; Jer. 14; Isa. 63:7–64:12; Hab. 1). These psalms typically express a sense of divine loss and longing for God’s return. While each lament is different, they follow a typical pattern:

  • Invocation / Address to God 
  • Complaint 
  • Petition(s)
  • Expression of Trust
  • Vow of Praise

Psalm 13 follows this pattern as David cries out to God, unburdens his soul, makes his petitions, and finishes with a vow of praise. Continue reading

The Historical Background of Psalm 74–75: A Case for Reading Psalms with 1–2 Chronicles

the-psalms.jpgIn 2017 I preached a sermon on Psalms 73–89. In it, I argued the historical background of Book 3 followed the historical events of 2 Chronicles (as this image illustrates). From this reading, Psalms 74–75 find a historical connection in Shisak’s invasion recorded in 2 Chronicles 10–12 (ca. 930 BC).

Many commentators place the “temple-smashing” description of Psalm 74 at the Babylonian destruction of the temple (ca. 586 BC). Surely, the later dating is plausible, but in my reading the textual evidence is equally, if not more, plausible for an earlier reading. And I tried to show that in the sermon.

This week, we recorded a new Via Emmaus podcast and the question about history came up again. So what follows are a few notes on Psalm 74–75 and why I believe it is best to read Psalms 73–89 in parallel with 2 Chronicles.

Take time to read, consider, and let me know what you think. If Chronicles runs parallel to the Psalms and vice-versa, then it opens large vistas in how to understand both books. Continue reading

What Should We Think About the Imprecatory Psalms?

angel-clouds-weather-vera-161199Imprecatory psalms (e.g., Pss 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140) are those psalms which call upon God to destroy the enemies of God. They come from the anguished hearts of persecuted Israelites, and they include some of the most shocking words in the Bible. Take just a few examples.

Psalm 35 provides one of the most acceptable imprecatory Psalms. Verses 4–6 read,

Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life!
Let them be turned back and disappointed
who devise evil against me!
Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the LORD driving them away!
Let their way be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the LORD pursuing them!
(Psalm 35:4–6)

In Psalm 109, the language gets more severe as David calls for the personal ruination of the wicked.

Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
may another take his office!
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
Let them be before the LORD continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!
(Psalm 109:6–15)

Finally, in Psalm 137 David pronounces a benediction on those who destroy the children of the wicked:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:7–9)

Due to their graphic violence and divine approval—they are in the Bible, after all—many Protestant liberals have charged the God of Israel with violence unbecoming a deity. Other modern readers have written off Christianity entirely because of the imprecatory Psalms and Israel’s violent history. Even for gospel-loving, grace-proclaiming Christians, the inspired cries for vengeance make us feel uncomfortable. They don’t immediately fit our normal grid for a God who is love. What, therefore, should we think about the imprecatory Psalms?

A few years ago, my PhD Supervisor and good fried, Stephen Wellum, gave a Sunday School lesson on these psalms, and what follows is an amplified outline of his lesson. Continue reading

Where Grace and Justice Meet: A Canonical Reading of Exodus 34:6–7

guido-jansen-400639-unsplash.jpgThe Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
— Exodus 34:6–7 —

Exodus 34:6–7 is one of the most important passages in the Bible. It’s also one of the more problematic. For how can God be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and quick to forgive but also unwilling to forgive the guilty (“who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children . . .”)? Doesn’t God’s self-revelation contain, at its heart, a significant contradiction?

Some have thought so, even solving the dilemma by debating the compositional history of Exodus 34, or denying its literary unity (see Ross Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known155). But for those who read Exodus as God’s inspired Word, such critical workarounds don’t work. Thus, we must consider how God’s mercy and justice are not two opposing attributes that bring conflict into God’s character. Instead, they are two aspects of God’s undivided holy nature, which reveal themselves perfectly in God’s relationship with his creation.

On this subject Ross Blackburn has been helpful as he reads Exodus 34 in light of the whole canon, with special attention to Exodus 20:5–6. Following Blackburn’s canonical exegesis, we can press deeper into the nature of God’s holy character and then work forward in redemptive history to see how Exodus 34:6–7 informs God’s mercy and justice in places like Jonah 3–4 and Nahum 1, where Exodus 34 is in both books but in different ways towards the people of Nineveh.  Continue reading

An Evidence of Repentance or Hypocrisy: Why Does Jonah 2 Cite So Many Psalms?

aaron-burden-534684-unsplashIt is striking the way Jonah 2 employs language from the Psalms. For those familiar with the Hebrew Psalter, it would be difficult to hear Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving without reflecting on other inspired Psalms. Just as songs which recycle older lyrics or melodies remind us of previous songs, so Jonah’s prayer should bring to our memory many lines in the Psalter.

Here is a verse by verse comparison. Clearly, the use of the Psalter is intentional, but I wonder why. Is the use of the Psalms an evidence of Jonah’s return to righteousness? Or is it something else? Could it be an instance where the Jonah’s lips draw near to God, but his heart remains far away? Should we automatically assume his use of Scripture is a sign of repentance? Or could it be that his prayer of thanksgiving without any stated repentance, as in Psalms 32 and 51, is actually an indicator of Jonah’s unrepentance.

Tomorrow, I’ll circle back to answer that question. But today, let me know what you think. Why does Jonah’s prayer recycle so many Psalms? Check on the comparison below and let me know what you think.
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Resources for Reading the Psalms Canonically

libraryOver the summer, I preached a series of messages on the Psalms. I argued that they are one unified book telling the story of salvation. In their midst the reader finds a movement from lament to praise and a series of peaks and valleys that follow the course of redemptive history from David (in Books 1 and 2) to the exile of David and Israel (in Book 3) to the establishment of Yahweh’s kingdom (in Book 4) to the coming kingdom of a New David (in Book 5).

As I preached this series, I was greatly helped by a number of resources. I’ve included many of them below. If you are interested in understanding the Psalms as one, unified and intentionally-arranged book, these articles, chapters, and books are a great start. If you have other key resources not listed here, please share them in the comments. I’d love to see how others are understanding the Psalms and their glorious message of grace.

In what follows you will find:

  1. Sermons
  2. Articles
  3. Academic Articles
  4. Book Chapters (with annotated notes)
  5. Books (with annotated notes)
  6. Commentaries (with annotated notes)
  7. Videos and Infographics

I pray these resources are helpful and that they increase your passion for the Psalms.  Continue reading